Blue Jay

The phrase “naked as a jaybird” refers to something especially bared, and morphed from the original phrase “naked as a robin.” Blue jays are born without many feathers, naked, one might say. As the phrase morphed, so too did the preceding adjective, growing to include crazy, mean, and saucy as a jaybird. The slight is obvious in calling someone “crazy as a jaybird,” but the slight to the blue jay might be overlooked. With a reputation that precedes them, blue jays are often scorned by birders who call them thugs and overly aggressive at feeders.

Photo by Eric Begin

Photo by Eric Begin

Indeed, blue jays have been found to ransack the nests of other songbirds. At feeders, jays have been known to mimic the call of red-shouldered hawks, perhaps to scare other songbirds into thinking a raptor is near. They'll steal feed from squirrels, nuthatches, and woodpeckers, but it is a rather uncommon occurrence.

Blue jays are opportunistic. A majority of their diet consists of acorns, nuts, seeds, grains, and fruits. Insects become an important part of their diet during the breeding season. However, the birds do eat a broad diet including frogs, toads, bird eggs, nestlings, and rarely roadkill or deceased animals.

These birds belong to the corvid family, and accordingly are incredibly smart. Researchers trapping and marking blue jays have difficulty catching the same bird twice. Captive jays have used instruments to pull food from outside a cage to within it. Some blue jays have remarkably learned to pluck ants from a hill, wiping the formic acid of the ants onto their breasts and making the ants digestible. Additionally, blue jays will cache anywhere from 3,000-5,000 acorns each year—relocating a good majority of those acorns.

Photo by Joshua Mayer

Photo by Joshua Mayer

Hugely important to the ecosystems of oak savannas and oak woodlands, blue jays have been considered a keystone species for the role they play in dispersing the acorns of oak trees.  If each bird “forgets” 5% of its crop, then an oak savanna will nevertheless have thousands of germinating oaks each year. Another mark of genius for blue jays is that they've been shown to discern fertile acorns with 88% accuracy. Other acorns may be infested with fungus, rust, or the acorn weevil, which lays eggs inside the growing acorn that will feed its larvae, which will eventually use long snouts to burrow a hole out of the acorn.

Photo by Robert Nunnally

Photo by Robert Nunnally

While oak trees arguably have their own role as a keystone species—allowing sunshine into the understory, fueling fire with combustible leaves, and providing food (acorns) for 150 species of birds and mammals—blue jays are bolted to that same role. Jays allow oak dispersal to an astounding level, as the birds will carry acorns over 2.5 miles away from the source tree.  In fact, after the last ice age, oak species dispersed into glacier-torn areas faster than wind dispersed seeds. It is thought that this is due to the dispersing behavior of blue jays.

“What about squirrels?” you might be asking. Squirrels also play an important role, but their dispersal is not as impressive as a blue jay's. The cached acorns of squirrels are most likely to be found within feet of the source tree. However, squirrels play a dynamic role in shaping the composition of the forest or savanna trees. Squirrels prefer to cache red and black oak nuts, while they prefer to eat white and bur oak nuts. This is because the red and black oak nuts are loaded with tannins, and store better for long periods. White oak acorns germinate in the fall and therefore don't keep as well as the red oak acorns. With fewer tannins, squirrels consume white oak treats immediately, and don't cache as many acorns from those white oak species. Even when white oaks are cached, the embryo is often excised.

Photo by Don Miller

Photo by Don Miller

Thus, blue jays may help to spread white and bur oak trees since they pick out fertile acorns and often find suitable sites for these acorns while burying them with a small amount of substrate. One study found that blue jays cached 55% of the acorns in a given area, while eating another 20% while they were gathering. Another interesting adaption from the blue jay is its ability to move multiple acorns per trip. The bird accomplishes this by storing some acorns in its “gular pouch” which can hold 2-3 acorns, storing one or two in its mouth, and storing one on the tip of its beak.

Blue jays live monogamous lives and run complex social circles throughout the year. It is thought that some birds recognize each other based on the markings of the face. Jays can be found in most forested habitats throughout Wisconsin, especially somewhere with oak trees. Here at Faville Grove, you can find these fascinating birds throughout the sanctuary, but they've been especially abundant in the ledge savanna where you’ll find them plucking acorns.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

2017 Songbird Nest Box Results

September 29th is the deadline for reporting nest box results to the Wisconsin Bluebird Restoration Association of Wisconsin. We are glad to report that 19 volunteers monitored 16 locations in Columbia and Dane Counties that fledged 1,129 songbirds from 267 nest boxes this summer.

Jerry Martin with the homemade nest boxes. Photo by Mark Martin

Jerry Martin with the homemade nest boxes. Photo by Mark Martin

Jerry Martin constructed and donated over 250 nest boxes to Madison Audubon Society in 2010. We erected many boxes at Goose Pond Sanctuary and also provided boxes to partners. Jerry made the boxes out of untreated cedar and this durable wood has weathered well.

This year 290 eastern bluebirds, 565 tree swallows, 27 black-capped chickadees, and 247 house wrens fledged. Every year weather conditions are different and impacts nesting success. The cool weather in June resulted in a lack of insects shortly after tree swallows hatched and a number of broods were lost to starvation which is sad to see.

At Goose Pond Sanctuary and our Erstad Prairie we lack trees and short grass cover that are preferred by bluebirds. Bluebirds feed on cutworms in the grass and they cannot locate cutworm in tall grass prairies. However, the pond and open habitat, along with nest boxes provide ideal tree swallow habitat. We were pleased to have 255 tree swallows fledge at Goose Pond and 66 fledge at Erstad Prairie.

The Martin’s trail at Wildland and the monitors in Dane County did better with the bluebirds due to oak savanna habitat, and golf courses with short grass and scattered trees. Curt and Arlys Caslavka, Kathie and Tom Brock, and Sally Keyel had 46, 40 and 41 bluebirds fledge from their trails.

Fledgling bluebird, photo by Patrick Ready

Fledgling bluebird, photo by Patrick Ready

Sally Keyel took the first place in the house wren department this year with the 109 wrens that fledged from the Sun Prairie golf course. For other monitors it was an average or below average year for wrens.

Only three trails had black-capped chickadees fledge this year and those numbers are down a little from other years.

Thanks to the nest box monitors for their weekly site visits and to the organizations that allow our monitors to place trails on their lands. The monitors educate many people over the summer on songbird nesting ecology, especially on the golf courses.

Tree swallow nestlings, photo by Patrick Ready

Tree swallow nestlings, photo by Patrick Ready

In September, eastern bluebirds, tree swallows, and house wrens head south for the winter. At Goose Pond Sanctuary we had hundreds of tree swallows gathering in large flocks before migration. We hope all of our songbirds have a good migration, find good weather in the south and return in good numbers in 2018.

If you would like to monitor a nest box trail at Goose Pond Sanctuary in 2018 please contact us (goosep@madisonaudubon.org).

Written by Mark Martin and Susan Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary resident managers, and Maddie Dumas, Goose Pond Sanctuary land steward

Banner photo: Eastern bluebird, photo by Patrick Ready

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

The red-bellied woodpecker, found in forested areas across Wisconsin, is a charismatic species and a year-round resident. The bird is commonly confused with the red-headed woodpecker, and eBird sightings are further confounded not only from the red-bellied woodpecker's red head, but also from its closeness in name, which can result in accidental identification.

Much more common than the red-headed woodpecker, the red-bellied woodpecker occupies a broad range of habitats, and over the continent its range has been increasing for quite some time. Range increases have been documented as early as 1910, and since the 1950's the bird has been pushing north at .85 degrees per decade and west at 1.06 degrees per decade. Interesting research from Jeremy Kirchman and Kathryn Schneider found that the bird's northern expansion has followed Bergmann's Rule, with larger-sized birds occurring in the northern latitudes. This is possibly due to a lower surface area to volume ration, which radiates less heat per unit of mass and is advantageous in a colder climate.

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

The range expansion of the red-bellied woodpecker is likely the result of a warming climate, and the birds have moved north into areas previously too cold to occupy. Researchers from UW-Madison have found that certain habitats enhance overwintering survival of birds, as they must expend vast energy reserves when the temperature dips below zero. These habitats include urban forests and high elevation forests that are not entirely fragmented. The urban heat island effect influences the first, while cold pooling is thought to influence the second.

We can see the effect of cold pooling at Faville Grove, as cool air at night dips into the Crawfish River floodplain. On walks back to my house at Prairie Lane, the rise of the Lake Mills Ledge marks a distinct rise in temperature. These warmer microenvironments can provide refuge for those cold winter evenings and offer a stepping stone as a species advances north.

The female will typically lay 3-4 eggs, with breeding beginning in late winter. Males will hold a territory year-round, and are known to aggressively defend nests, though red-bellied woodpecker nests are often the victims of starling competition.

You can find these woodpeckers in the Lake Mills Ledge and Faville Woods year-round. Just remember, even though the red-bellied woodpecker has a red head, its barred black-and-white back is distinct, along with its red nape.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Pileated Woodpecker

Mama pileated is bringing home the bacon... errrr, bugs for her young nesting in a tree at Madison Audubon's Otsego Marsh. Photo by Mark Martin

Mama pileated is bringing home the bacon... errrr, bugs for her young nesting in a tree at Madison Audubon's Otsego Marsh. Photo by Mark Martin

Mark Martin and Madison Audubon board member John Shillinglaw were touring the prairies at Goose Pond Sanctuary on August 25th. They had just left Sue Ames Prairie and were going past the Hopkins Road Prairie when Mark spotted a large crow-sized bird flying over Hopkins Road Prairie. He excitedly said to John what is that bird? John must have been a Boy Scout because he was ready with his field glasses around his neck and cried “pileated woodpecker”!  It is nice when two people confirm the same species with confidence.

This is a new bird for the Goose Pond Bird List.  It is not often we can add a bird to the 250-plus bird checklist, and this brings the tally of woodpecker species up to seven. We learned that these large woodpeckers have a home range of around 300 acres that must include a lot of wooded land.

With our lack of trees, woodpeckers are uncommon at Goose Pond. The last yellow-bellied sapsucker was recorded in 1991. Last year we saw a red-headed woodpecker fly past the back yard, our first sighting in 38 years! In the past two years, birders have observed northern flickers, downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers.  The downy woodpeckers are sometimes seen in winter in our food plots looking for insects in the stems of corn, sunflowers, and sorghum.

A pair of pileated woodpeckers navigate the entryway of a nest at Otsego Marsh in Columbia County. Photo by Richard Armstrong

A pair of pileated woodpeckers navigate the entryway of a nest at Otsego Marsh in Columbia County. Photo by Richard Armstrong

In 1991, Sam Robbins wrote in Wisconsin Birdlife that the pileated woodpecker “is a rare resident in southeast Wisconsin” and “is uncommon in the western edge of Columbia County.” Goose Pond Sanctuary is located in both.

The current breeding bird atlas shows eight atlas blocks in Columbia County with nesting confirmations of pileated woodpeckers compared to two blocks in the first atlas conducted 1995 to 2000.  

Pileateds are increasing in southeast Wisconsin as forested cover increases.  Atlasers in Dane County have found pileateds in Madison at the UW Arboretum, Owen Park, and at the Madison School Forest just southwest of Madison.

 We wonder if someone will see this bird again in our area. It pays to always be observant and ready with your field glasses when out birding, especially at Goose Pond Sanctuary.

Written by Mark Martin and Susan Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary Resident Managers

Bringing Birds Back to Faville Grove

Since its inception in 1997, Faville Grove Sanctuary has been benefiting the landscape and the human communities around it. There are countless individuals to thank, and as the sanctuary has grown, the people deserving thanks continue to increase. Growing to encompass more land, neighbors, organizational partners, and wildlife than ever before, it's appropriate to turn back and look at who has benefited from Faville Grove Sanctuary. Not humans, but birds, of course.

(Click on the photos below to scroll through)

The red-headed woodpeckers chatter through the ledge savanna, now mostly cleared of invasive brush and trees. Some large standing dead black willows provide nesting cavities for the birds and are a good spot to catch their brilliant crimson head.

A cacophony from primrose means the dickcissels have made their tardy but annual return to the prairies. Once a grassland bird of great decline, they've found a home here.

There's nothing quite like hearing the wheeling call of a bobolink on the floodplain prairies of the Crawfish River. A neighbor on a walk remarked, “it's so nice to have them back every year.”

The song of meadowlark is as sure a spring sign as any, and the competition to hear the first remains strong at Faville Grove.

Henslow's sparrow, photo by Arlene Koziol

Henslow's sparrow, photo by Arlene Koziol

Henslow's sparrows now find home in prairies that haven't burned for a few years. Their little call marks a big success story.

Northern harriers hunt the flat, open grasslands, apex predators giving a signature to the landscape. Their presence indicates a healthy vole population, an unseen but vital part of the ecosystem.

Short-eared owls have returned on cold winter nights, and can sometimes be seen haunting at dusk. Their silence contrasts the big role they play as a predator on the prairie.

With a long buzzing call, grasshopper sparrows can be heard migrating through the sanctuary in spring, hopefully they'll find the habitat to nest here in future years.

There's countless more: sedge wrens, scarlet tanagers, catbirds, great horned owls, mallards, blue-winged teal, northern flickers, red-tailed hawks, bald eagles, Cooper’s hawks, willow flycatchers, field sparrows, clay-colored sparrows, and on and on.

Faville Grove landscape, photo by David Musolf

Faville Grove landscape, photo by David Musolf

Looking forward, one can hope for more wildlife to call Faville Grove home. Upland sandpipers, which once nested in great densities on Faville Prairie, haven't been seen since the 1940's, but with increasing habitat one can hope for a return. Bell's vireo, loggerhead shrike, American golden plover, and northern bobwhite could also conceivably return. For that, it will take the right kind of people to continue the tradition of habitat restoration here, and fortunately those people are just the type who have made Faville Grove what it is today.

We celebrate Faville Grove Sanctuary and the incredible amount of work and love poured into this land on Sunday, September 10, 2-5pm at the Prairie Lane site. Stop by to say hello and check out the restorations for yourself!

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward